24 March 2000

Doing impossible in a mans world

It is still not easy to make a living in what has been a

mans world but that hasnt deterred the small

farmer/haulier Jacqueline Sarsby met in Devon

AT the turn of the year when all the news in the south-west was of floods and flu, Sarah Chambers, a 36-year-old farmer living near Kingsbridge in Devon, had urgent work on hand.

Her Texel ewes were looking heavy and prosperous, but she had, as yet, no shelter for them on her 18ha (45 acres) of treeless pastureland. Where was she going to lamb them, if January brought more weeks of driving rain and Atlantic gales?

Lambing was imminent, so while most people were still polishing off the last of the mince pies, Sarah was out in the field, mixing concrete, setting supports in, and building the ewes a poly-tunnel.

Sarah is 5ft tall and an independently-minded person, who obviously doesnt listen. She didnt pay attention at school, when they told her a girl couldnt become a farmer or a jockey, and she hasnt listened to what people have been saying for years: That you cant start farming without a background in farming, an inherited farm, or a very large sum in the bank. But with just 18ha how does she manage?

Being neither a hobby farmer, nor a diversifier, she does have two businesses, both of which are involved with farming. As well as fattening and selling her bullocks and rearing her lambs, Sarah has a haulage business and drives her own cattle lorry. She has been taking farmers stock to local markets and abattoirs for a decade, although being unusually small for a lorry-driver has had its disadvantages.

&#42 Couldnt reach

At first, she says, she used to go around with a milk crate to stand on: "A standard livestock container is built for a standard person, I suppose, or a tall person, and I couldnt reach anything." Eventually, she had a container specially made to suit her height.

But when it comes to dealing with bullocks, being a small woman is not necessarily a disadvantage. "It doesnt matter how strong you are or whether youre a female or a male, if they dont want to go where you want them to go, you wont get them to go with you," she says. "Its mind over matter."

Essentially, Sarah is a superlative stockman, and enjoys every moment of it. She shows her animals at the local agricultural and fatstock shows, and last year, they were the overall champions at the Newton Abbot and Dartmouth Shows. But all through the 1990s, judges have been pinning ribbons on her stock.

There is a lot of work involved, but she enjoys it. She feeds the bullocks well and gets it used to the halter and to being led – she even took her first show heifer for a walk in Ashburton to get it used to life in the public eye. Finally, there is the pre-Show washing and coiffing, to make it look as sleek and splendid as possible.

Buying the land and coming to these windswept acres of the South Hams was not a lonely decision for Sarah. She has almost always worked from home, and she now lives with her mother, Sheila, and her 94-year-old grandmother, in the farmhouse adjoining her land. Like most single farmers of either sex, she knows how difficult it would be to manage without Mum doing most of the cooking, paying in the cheques, looking after the housework and generally helping. Sheilas gentle disposition is a great asset, Sarah says, particularly when things are not going well.

&#42 Parents not farmers

How, then, did Sarah start? Her parents were not farmers, but when she was a child, they rented a bungalow on a dairy farm, and she loved it. After she left school, she worked with horses, milked cows, and rode point to point, getting her HGV licence so she could transport her horse in a haulier friends lorry. She started working for him too. When he moved away, she bought the lorry and the goodwill and has been driving ever since. At the same time, she has been building up her stock.

Hers is a modest success story. She has gone from keeping two bullocks in a friends field, to owning 4ha (10acres) and buying grass keep, and now she has 18ha, a few cows and a fine flock of Texels. Friends, have been very important to her, but the advantage Sarah has had from the beginning was knowing what she really wanted to do – and not listening.

Size means nothing when you have determination, as Sarah Chambers proves with both of her enterprises.